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Toys organized by my wife.

Possession, Decision Fatigue, And Displacement From Self

Lessons from spring cleaning.

So the weekend before last, I was sort of drafted into cleaning the house. We had just got a new vacuum cleaner, a machine so powerful that it could pull stuff out of the carpet that I had no idea was there. Even on the second pass the following week, it was still pulling up tons of stuff that I didn’t expect to be there. I vacuumed the whole house over two days for two weekends in a row, and the air is a bit clearer now. I find it much easier to breathe today. But I also did something else two weeks ago, I worked with my wife to clean our storage room.

Our storage room was a mess with clutter everywhere. But in a couple of hours, We had removed a bunch of stuff we didn’t need anymore. I broke down a bunch of empty boxes for “recycling”. My wife organized everything that was left. She has a gift for sorting and organizing things, so I am mindful that when I move something that she organized, I put it back. Now the storage room is easy to navigate. I can walk from one side to the other without shifting my center of gravity.

In the process of cleaning up the storage room, I noticed all that stuff that I had forgotten. Little things, big things, each had a different purpose, and as I handled each of them, I remembered what they were for. I remembered that each item, everything that I own I share, and that takes up space in my mind. Each and every single thing that I own requires space in my brain for ownership and enjoyment. Everything in my life requires a decision to be made.

As I surveyed all of the stuff in my storage room, I thought about how those things were used, what they were for, and I tried to remember the last time that I had used them. I still have two boxes of 600 CDs. I haven’t cracked most of them open in more than a decade. My wife has giant pots for cooking for special occasions. We have chairs in storage for when we have family gatherings. I got rid of the empty boxes and kept the Apple computer box because my wife asked me to keep it and just in case we might need it.

Later that day, and since then, I’ve been noticing everything around me in a new light. I’ve been noticing that everything on my desk, everything in the room, in the house, all of that requires a decision to be made. Every little thing requires a decision to be made just in order to enjoy it and maintain it. Each and every object that I own, along with everything else that is within my sphere of influence requires mental effort.

The mental effort required to notice the things around me is discreet. There is a minimum amount of effort required to even take solace of the abundance that I live in now. I may not have to act now, but just noticing the stapler on my desk, how it beckons me to move it, to make it straight (I just did that), to consider its utility — that requires mental effort, energy. Do I need to staple anything right now? What could I stick together that would make sense to keep together?

Every time I climb up or down the stairs, I am confronted by the things that I own. I possess these things. They own me as much as I own them. I make a decision about using them or not to use them every time that I see them. Every decision requires a discrete amount of energy and we only have so much energy in a day. And then we go to sleep again. Even in our sleep, our brain is processing everything that we’ve seen during the day. That requires energy, too.

And then there are the people in my life. My wife, my kids, my neighbors, my coworkers and the people I encounter briefly during my errands, all require decisions to be made, and each decision requires energy. The things that I own require space in my mind that could be used for getting to know other people. In this sense, property that I own competes for attention with the people in my life.

You know, this whole thing about property and ownership? That came about very late in the evolution of humans. I’m not even sure we have adapted to the concept of possessions. I don’t know for sure if we know how to strike a balance between people and things. And we have a lot of things.

I’ve seen enough garage sales to know how good we are at accumulating stuff. I have piles of stuff that I no longer need and every so often, when the weather is warm, I pack up my SUV with stuff we don’t need anymore and donate it to the local Goodwill Store. I see this as a regular process of renewal, and I believe that making donations of unwanted things is the best way to recycle things I don’t need anymore.

I have also seen how the clutter in my life takes up space in my mind. A pile of paperwork, clutter on my computer desktop, files in my download folder, personal effects on my desk, on my nightstand, on the shelf by my bed, in my pockets and in my car, all of that stuff requires mental effort. The mental effort required to acquire, enjoy and maintain my possessions displaces me from the people in my life.

While flipping channels long ago, I happened upon an episode of “Selling Spelling Manor”. This is a pair of episodes where we see Candy Spelling, widow of the great Aaron Spelling (think Beverly Hills, 90210), cataloging and selling all of the stuff she and her husband accumulated during their lives together. She rented and filled a warehouse full of stuff she no longer needed. She cataloged everything, figured out prices for each and every item, and eventually sold off all that she no longer wanted or needed anymore.

Whenever I go shopping with my wife, this is what I’m thinking about as I walk through aisle after aisle of stuff for sale. It doesn’t matter if I’m in a Target, Walmart, H&M or a Smiths, there is always a section for what I call “landfillers”, the gizmos and gadgets that look great on TV but fail to meet expectations when used in real life. This is especially true of toys and electronics that serve a very narrow and often temporary purpose. And every one of those items requires mental effort to enjoy, maintain and to avoid losing them.

I see this concept in pop culture, too. Consider the premise for the movie, “Toy Story”. It’s a story about a band of toys that have been forgotten by the kids that own them, and they are intent on fulfilling their life purpose, to bring joy to kids. Yet, their life purpose is utterly dependent on the ability of the kids to hold those toys in their mind long enough to enjoy them.

Speaking of movies, I’m thinking about the audio system for our TV in my basement. A nice 65" Samsung TV set up with a stereo receiver and two large tower speakers. Great sound, great picture, and it all requires mental effort to enjoy. We normally find some comfort in watching TV, but just watching anything on TV requires mental effort that still could be directed at getting to know someone else, or even ourselves. Just taking a few seconds to recall my little mancave in the basement requires mental effort that could be used for writing this article.

That’s part of the reason why I write. I write for introspection, a process that I cannot engage in if I’m watching TV. I cannot think of myself or others if I’m thinking about the stuff in my storage room, my living room, or the cars in my garage. I cannot think of myself if I’m in an endless pursuit of money. I cannot think of others if I’m always pursuing money, either.

This is one reason why I don’t really like to spend money. I avoid setting foot into a store unless I know for sure what I’m going to buy and what I’m going to use that thing that I buy for. I have on numerous occasions suffered buyers remorse, so I’m very careful about buying things. I’m fine with food and other commodities, but when it comes to things that are permanent, I exercise more care. I know that the moment I bring something new into my house, whatever it is, it will take up some discreet amount of space in my mind.

I declutter to reclaim the space in my mind. I donate items that I no longer need to reclaim space in my mind. I get organized to reclaim space in my mind. I am aware that I need that space in my mind to know myself, my family and my fellowship. I am aware that everything that I own displaces me from self. I am mindful of those facts before I buy anything.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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